- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 14, 2007


By Georgina Howell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


The myriad denominations and tribes of the Middle East; e.g. Sunnis and Shias, Kurds and Turks, Palestinians and Jews; seem perpetually at loggerheads. Yet it wasn’t always this way. There was a time, not so long ago, when a single courageous person, armed with a mastery of language and diplomacy, was able to navigate well among the disparate groups.

Her name was Gertrude Bell, “a name that is written indelibly on Arab history — a name which is spoken with awe,” as King Faisal Hussain, the first King of Iraq, asserted upon her death.

Author Georgina Howell is right on cue with her biography, “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” about the driving force behind the creation of modern-day Iraq. Ms. Howell shows just how closely connected we all are to this ancient and wondrous land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers.

Born into a world of privilege, “as English as English can be, which is to say she was bred in the wuthering heights of Yorkshire,” the granddaughter of the foremost industrialist of his time, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, Gertrude Bell, in the words of the famous archaeologist David Hogarth, was “the most brilliant creature who ever came among us, the most alive at every point, with her tireless energy, her splendid vitality, her unlimited capacity for work, for talk for play.”

She lost her mother at age three. Five years later her father, Hugh, married Florence Eveleen Eleanore Olliffe, a Parisian society woman studying music at the Royal College of London. Florence, a talented musician and writer, later became a well known playwright in England.

It was Florence’s example more than anyone else’s that instilled in Gertrude the independence and self-confidence to turn her back on Victorian society: “It was the age when even piano legs were draped lest they should seem too provocative.” At 17 Gertrude was one of only two women enrolled at Oxford. She graduated in two years instead of the usual three and was the first woman to receive a First in Modern History. She would achieve many firsts in her abbreviated life.

Bell went on to establish herself as a world-renowned archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author, poet, photographer and legendary mountaineer. She traveled around the world several times, and yet her greatest passion remained the desert where she traveled like a Bedouin by camel, with guns, tents and canvas cots. Her indomitable spirit carried her through some of the most desolate and dangerous places on Earth, but there was something more than her iron will that drove her — a broken heart.

She was first engaged at 24, to Henry Cadogan, grandson of the third Earl of Cadogan. She met him on her travels to Persia. It was not meant to be, however; her father, whom she revered above all others, made inquiries and concluded that Henry’s income was “entirely insufficient.” The marriage was off, and a year later Henry died from pneumonia. As Ms. Howell writes, “A tragic pattern in her love life had been set.”

After Cadogan’s death, Gertrude threw herself into her studies and travels. She learned Persian and later published a book about her travels there. Then, in 1900, Gertrude journeyed through Arabia, eventually meeting up with the fierce Drouze tribesmen.

Between 1899 and 1904, Gertrude took to mountaineering like a fish to water. In 1902, along with two mountaineers, she climbed the 14,000-foot Finsteraarhorn, and her attempt on the peak was regarded by many as one of the greatest expeditions in the history of Alpine climbing. Ms. Howell describes the death-defying expedition in nail-biting detail.

Perhaps the most captivating part of the biography is Bell’s trip across the impenetrable Nefud Dessert to the ancient and mysterious city of Hayyil. This expedition would test the limits of her endurance.

She undertook the most dangerous trek of her life as a sort of catharsis after the second love of her life, married man and decorated solider Dick Doughty-Wylie (he later died at Gallipoli), spurned her advances. She wrote in her diary along the way: “Occasionally I wonder whether I shall come out of this adventure alive. But the doubt has no shadow of anxiety in it — I am so profoundly indifferent.”

Amazingly, her caravan made it to Hayyil, a city right out of “Arabian Nights,” complete with eunuchs, slaves and harems. The Rashid Amir, only 16 at the time, held her prisoner for 11 days, but in the end her persistence and charms, like Scheherazade, won the day and she was allowed to leave the city and return with her caravan to Damascus.

Hayyil was her magnum opus and her last adventure, but her vast knowledge of the tribes with whom she interacted during her travels would serve her and her nation well during World War I. In 1915 Naval Intelligence sought her knowledge, and she was employed at Cairo — the first female officer in the history of British military intelligence.

She worked there in the Arab Bureau, alongside T.E. Lawrence, whose fame as Lawrence of Arabia would eclipse her own (with a little help from Lowell Thomas). Later in the war she was called to Baghdad to see if “it would be possible to assemble an Arab army against the Turks.” It was there that she began to privately form a “complicated scheme to foster Arab self-determination.”

After the war, Gertrude single-mindedly sought a united Arab land of self-determination, despite great resistance from Britain and Turkey. The British, who ran the area by mandate, nominated Faisal Hussain as king. On July 12, 1921, 96 percent of the voting population confirmed him.

Bell remained in Baghdad until her death in 1926 by suicide. Much to Ms. Howell’s credit, she does not propose reasons or causes for Bell’s suicide; rather, she lets the reader interpret the facts, which are many.

“Gertrude Bell” is a long and tedious read, and the biography often seems out of control as events lurch forward and back with inordinate insertions of diary entries, letters and excerpts from books that, in some instances, don’t match the chronology or the topic at hand. However, the overall effect is a round and thorough rendition of an incomparable and astonishing life.

As her coffin wound along the streets of Baghdad, Ms. Howell writes, “[e]normous crowds had assembled from across the country … Islamic leaders side by side with Jewish merchants, effendis alongside the poor and ragged. It was reported in the newspapers that ‘the whole population of the capital participated in the procession of burial.’”

Richard Horan is author of two novels, “Life in the Rainbow” and “Goose Music.” He teaches composition at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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